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Future Sixers: Malik Monk Is a Perfect Fit, But Far From a Perfect Player

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Monk is a rare case of a player whose fit might override other concerns.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Kentucky vs Wichita State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It was impossible to follow college basketball this season without being wowed by Malik Monk. Whether it was his 47 point outing against North Carolina, the barrage of off the dribble 3’s, or plays like this, Monk grabbed fans’ attention and didn’t let go.

As a sweet shooting guard with the potential to add some off-the-dribble pop to his game, Monk has frequently been cited as a draft option for the Sixers. Were the Sixers to attain two Top 10 picks following May’s lottery, walking away with Monk as one of the two picks would be an exciting outcome. With only one pick in June’s draft, seeing Bryan Colangelo opt for Malik Monk would be a bit more deflating. That’s because, while he is a very good shooter, Monk has not performed at an elite level this year, and he lacks enough in other skill departments to ameliorate his one-sided nature.

After his January 3 outing demolished Texas A&M, Monk had the look of a truly elite college shooter. Through 14 games, nearly half a NCAA season, Monk was scoring 40 points per 100 possessions on a true shooting percentage of 65.4%. He was connecting on 44.2% of his threes and knocking down 86.4% of his free throws. Taken in aggregate, he was close to the 90th percentile or above in every significant shooting and efficiency category for wing players.

However, there was reason to worry. Number one was his shot selection: Monk was draining an absurd number of deep 2’s off the dribble, as well as canning all of his contested 3’s and rarely getting to the rim. A quick glance at his shot chart against UNC was impressive; that many made field goals is quite a feat at the college level.

However, closer inspection presented a few more worries. Monk had taken 12 mid-range jumpers, including 9 deep 2’s, and had managed to make a scalding 7 of them. In fact, while Monk scored 47 points on 77.8% TS(!!!) in that game, the expected production for an average draft prospect would have yielded only 31 points on 51.1% TS, based on shot location alone, and ignoring the proximity of the defenders (They were close. He took a lot of contested jumpers). This led to some skepticism on my part.

But...

Monk had sustained his freak percentages for enough of the season that it was starting to look like his real output. For 14 games, Monk had set the world ablaze— just long enough to convince us that maybe Monk was an unconscionably good shooter who might have been the most dangerous deep threat since Steph Curry. There was reason to believe that Monk could potentially meld together two very useful archetypes, an elite off-ball shooter with secondary ball-handling chops. That type of player could approximate Ray Allen’s playing style, and Allen was a hugely valuable offensive weapon for the duration of his prime years.

The reason for optimism lay not only in the volume and efficiency at which Monk converted his shots, but also in the variety of his shot attempts. He converted shots curling off screens, off the dribble, with a hand in his face, or off-balance. Monk needs no time or space to get off his shot, and when he’s on, that can mean death for a defense.

You can see just how little space Monk needs to get his shot off. Those quick-trigger plays unlock several different play types in the NBA, and they place additional stress on defenses worried about an off-ball threat in addition to an attacking playmaker. It’s easy to envision coaches calling plays for Monk similar to this.

And he has shown the ability to square his feet quickly coming off a screen and release quickly before the defense can contend.

But Monk has shown a depth of shooting repertoire that goes beyond his catch and shoot arsenal. He has already demonstrated the capacity to pump fake, sidestep, and drain a quick release jumper off the dribble.

With his strength as a shooter, Monk will be an enormous offensive threat through simple floppy action or pin-down screens. Were he a shooter of the caliber of Redick, Korver, or Klay Thompson, as he had appeared to be through the first two and a half months of the season, Monk could have immense value simply by breaking even on defense and bringing little else on offense. Unfortunately, as the season progressed, Monk quietly regressed.

By season’s end, Monk wound up shooting 39.7% from 3, 82.2% from the line, and had a true shooting percentage of 58.6%. All three final tallies were lower than his first two months, and, in the case of TS%, significantly so.

This is significant because it means that Monk no longer compares favorably to other elite freshman shooters.

There is some selection bias involved here, of course. This isn’t a comprehensive list of freshman shooting seasons, and even Lillard and Allen turned into great NBA shooters. But that’s also the point— elite shooters outshot Monk as freshmen. He’s clearly still a very good shooter, and the expectation should be that he will shoot well in the NBA, but he’s also clearly a step below the Splash Bros., Korver, and Redick. It’s about degrees of elite for Monk. In fact, Hall and Kennard are in this same draft class, and there are strong arguments to be made that each of them is the best shooter in the class, not Monk.

A closer look at the numbers doesn’t improve the picture much. While Hoop-Math doesn’t have data for many of these players, it does have data going back to 2011-12, and the increased specificity doesn’t favor Monk. On 2-point jumpers*, Monk shot worse than he did from distance, as he converted only 37.9% of them. That places him just below average on jumpers, in the 47th percentile.

*Hoop-Math doesn’t delineate by distance on this statistic, so we may be comparing Monk, who was heavy on 18-20 foot jumpers, to players who took a lot of 8-12 footers. Unfortunately, this is what we’ve got.

Perhaps a larger number of Monk’s jumpers were unassisted and off the dribble, which would curtail his overall percentages. After all, there are an awful lot of Monk highlights that look like this:

By the eye-test, my expectation would be that he is assisted on an exceedingly low number of his jumper attempts. Contrary to my expectations, however, Monk was assisted on 81.7% of his threes, which places him just below the wing average of 81.1% (fewer assisted possessions is the more impressive feat in this case). On two-point jumpers, he is assisted 20.3% of the time, which is above average, but not impressively so, and is actually the median expectation for wing players.

So Monk’s shooting percentages do not appear to be artificially suppressed by his field goal attempt types. This suggests that he is a very good shooter rather than an elite one, and it places a higher burden on his ability to create for himself or for teammates. In both cases, he struggled this year.

Monk did show some nascent passing ability, leading some to believe he could eventually transition into a point guard role. He’s not an overtly selfish player, and he has the touch to set up bigs for easy buckets.

However, he floundered when he was asked to take on a larger creation burden for the team. This can be seen in his passing numbers. In raw terms, Monk’s assist rate of 13.3% was average for a wing; with some growth beyond the normal expectation, it could be within the realm of reality for Monk to become a more competent creator. However, once his assist rate is normalized for his 27.2% usage rate, he compares far less favorably to his peers, placing in the 33rd percentile for wing creators.

Some of that may be due to his role at Kentucky. Calipari tends to give the reins to his point guard, and it has stifled the production of Wildcat 2-guards in the past. Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, especially, showed very quickly in the NBA that they were more skilled than they appeared to be at Kentucky. With De’Aaron Fox monopolizing playmaking responsibilities, that might have also been the case with Monk.

Luckily, we have a few games in which Fox was unable to play, or else played fewer than 10 minutes, which forced Monk into a more prominent initiation role. Fox missed games on January 31 against Georgia and February 25 against Florida, and he played only 8 minutes on January 21 against South Carolina. In the three games combined, Monk created seven assists (2.5 per 40 minutes), but also had 15 turnovers. Three games is obviously not a representative sample. Still, an assist to turnover rate of 0.47 is not a good omen for Monk’s future as a lead initiator.

The game against Florida was especially illustrative in this regard. First, Monk displays a nice read in the pick and roll. Having just made a 3-point shot, both Florida defenders are concerned with stopping Monk from deep, leaving Bam Adebayo uninhibited on his roll to the basket. Monk tosses a lob his way, and Bam has no trouble flushing it.

Three minutes later, Monk again finds himself running a 1-5 PnR with Bam. This time, the Florida defenders anticipate the same play Monk had just made, but he makes it again anyway. The Gators take the ball away and head down the court with a live-ball turnover.

This demonstrates how much trouble Monk has reading defenses and taking what they give him.

Monk also struggles to create off the dribble. While he has been a wizard in transition, where he frequently leaks out and can zoom by any defender when he has a head of steam, he has been surprisingly poor beating players in the halfcourt. For a player with incredible vertical athleticism, Monk has had difficulty translating that into a strong first step. Too often, he’ll take one or two dribbles and hoist a step-back J, rather than beating his defender to the hoop.

Even when he gets into the paint, he lacks the same explosion towards the rim that he exhibits in the halfcourt. Instead, he lobs up floaters, avoiding contact rather than jumping through big men and getting to the rim or the free throw line. He will undoubtedly improve some as he gains weight, but it’s unlikely to ever become a strength of his.

This issue is compounded by Monk’s weak handle and poor shake. As with finishing, Monk’s strength in transition belies his inability here. He can skate by an entire team of defenders when he has forward momentum, but he lacks the ability to change speeds or direction effectively.

This is most evident in his dire halfcourt shot chart. Monk attempts 2.4 unassisted rim field goals per 40 minutes, a mark that is bad, but not bottom of the barrel. However, in the halfcourt, that plummets to 0.8 unassisted rim field goals per 40 minutes, nearly half the expectation for a wing player.

The only other 2017 prospect to underachieve expectations to that degree is Andrew Jones. For both players, it’s clear that they struggle to get to the rim in the halfcourt. However, Jones’ fullcourt success is owed in part to his strength as a defender. He harries opposing point guards incessantly, and it shows in a very high steal rate. Monk’s transition success is due in part to his tendency to leak out. So while Jones’ high transition opportunities are a function of his defensive play helping his team, Monk’s are a function of his defensive play hurting his team.

And therein lies the rub with Monk. If Monk were an outstanding shot-maker and shot creator who struggled on D, you could live with his shortcomings. Conversely, if he were an outstanding shot-maker and good defender who struggled to create, you could live with his shortcomings. But he has issues in both of the latter categories, which makes a bet on him a bit more difficult to stomach.

At only 6’3 and with a most recent wingspan measurement of 6’3.5,* Monk lacks the physical measurements to guard bigger wings. That means he is projected as a 2-position defender at best, and could be relegated to only guarding point guards in certain playoff matchups.

*There is some disagreement as to what Monk’s actual WS is. He had measured between 6’6 and 6’7 previously, and doesn’t look overly T-Rexy, but we’ll wait for Combine measurements before knowing for sure.

More worrying than his size, though, is that he has simply not been good as a defender for Kentucky. Defensive metrics hate Monk; his DBPM of 1.4 places him in the 29th percentile of wings, and Sports-Reference’s crude DRtg statistic scores him 5 points worse than Kentucky as a team.

It’s not evident at first why he stacks up so poorly in defensive metrics. His bottom-of-the-barrel rebounding is likely one contributing factor, but he isn’t your typical bad defender. He has both the foot speed to stay in front of drivers, and the awareness not to lose his man on off-ball action. However, if you watch closely enough, you can see his lack of effort manifest itself in consistent end-of-possession ambivalence.

Monk demonstrates a lot of good in this possession. He starts on-ball, navigates some traffic, and forces a pass. Then he switches onto the driving Dustin Thomas, again stays in front, and forces a kickout with Adebayo’s help to end the drive.

But then he totally disengages. As is his wont, he eschews boxing out but doesn’t crash the defensive boards either, instead slowly drifting further and further towards the three-point line until he sees Kentucky secure the rebound. Then he’s off to the races, where he uses his incredible transition scoring skills to put up two points.

In this case, it worked in Kentucky’s favor. But all too often, his man will sneak in for an offensive rebound, or Monk won’t put in a strong contest to finish off a drive, and his opponent will get an easy couple of points. It has become a cliché that you need to rebound to finish a defensive possession, but it’s absolutely true, and Monk badly hurts his team in that regard. In his case, it’s less about grabbing rebounds himself— while his rebound rate is anemic, you could probably live with it— as it is about preventing opponents from grabbing them.

It’s not only rebounding where his diminished effort is apparent. He rarely makes unscripted plays that break up a drive, or prevent a lethal pass, instead sticking to his man. He’s not disruptive or pesky. He simply takes care of the minimal assignment, and then leaks out. It creates a situation where the sum of his defensive contribution is less than its parts.

With Brett Brown coaching him, it’s possible that Monk will turn a corner in this regard. Brown has shown a knack for improving effort among some players, after all. Playing with the Sixers would also put him in a more ideal defensive situation, where he is asked to guard players who are smaller than him, but not quicker, and who are also non-threats to rebound.

With Monk, the numbers tell a pretty complete story. He’s a very good shooter and transition opportunist, with pronounced weaknesses pretty much everywhere else.

And while that is a very flawed player, his two strengths would be perfect complements next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Simmons’ elite rebounding and transition passing would unleash Monk on the break, while covering for his propensity to leak out.

Embiid’s all-league defense may be enough to cover for any poor defenders. If he can cover for Ersan Ilyasova and Nik Stauskas, why shouldn’t he also be find next to Malik Monk?

With this as perhaps the Sixers’ last opportunity to grab an elite level prospect, it would be disappointing to walk away with Monk rather than Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, or Lonzo Ball. But if the Sixers get a higher level prospect with more creation upside than Monk and have a second pick to pair with it, there are few shooters as scary for Sixers’ opponents as Monk.